In this student spotlight series, we are highlighting some of our wonderful Virtual Excellence Academy members to share their journeys.
All the ups, downs and surprises on the way to building their dream business, giving you a realistic insight into where this career path can take you and how it can impact multiple areas of your life!
Today we’re interviewing the dynamic duo behind Thankful Cow Solutions, Amanda Sloan and Thom Knight. These two are breaking molds, questioning the status quo, living life on their terms and putting their interests at the forefront!
Who are you and what do you do? (aka what’s your elevator pitch)
Thom: I’m a personal virtual assistant. I work closely with individual business owners to provide them with exemplary customer service for their clients, and admin and technical support on-demand as they continue to grow.
Amanda: I’m a copywriter, content creator, and podcast enthusiast! I created The Podcast Kit, now a DNK course, and co-host the podcast, Geek Herring. I help my clients write meaningful and engaging blogs, articles, podcast shownotes, newsletters, social media posts, and more. Basically, I do the words.
Tell us more about yourselves, where you are in the world these days, and what passions hold your interest lately?
Thom: Currently back home in Northern Ireland, but we usually spend time traveling between here and North America to visit family and friends. When I’m not working, I’m probably playing indie games or board games, or perhaps extending my 365+ day streak on Duolingo learning German. Das ist sehr gut ja?
Amanda: I’ve just returned home to Northern Ireland after spending 10 months in Ontario! When I’m not writing kickass copy, I’m a bit of a geek: busy exploring fantasy worlds in Dungeons and Dragons, reading and writing fiction, board or video gaming, road-tripping around whatever country I’m in, or diving into whatever new hobby I’ve picked up lately.
Why did you decide to become VAs and how did your lifestyles change after pursuing this career?
Thom: The main reason for me was I was very unhappy being in jobs where using your initiative and striving for more would not really give you any benefits. The average 9-5 job you can probably get by doing the bare minimum, and for some people that is okay, but I always strive to go above and beyond. The longer you do this, however, you realize this brings you no closer to progressing in an organization or developing your skill set. After 10 years of jobs that didn’t fulfill me or challenge me enough, it was time to take a leap. This in turn would also offer opportunities to work with a wider range of clients and be able to do this remotely. Being able to travel between Northern Ireland and Canada at a whim has been valuable for Amanda and I to ensure we strike a work-life balance with our friends and families across two continents.
Amanda: After my first foray into business (a healthy food & coffee shop) failed, followed by an experience with two terrible managers, I decided it was time to pursue my passion: writing. The VEA came across my radar at the perfect moment and has completely changed my life. Being able to work from anywhere has meant I’m able to spend more time with my family, which after 15 years of living across an ocean from them, was everything, especially over the last two years. I also love to set my own schedule and honor the fact that I thrive with a slower morning, enjoy an after-lunch walk, and can take a day off whenever I need or want to.
Working together as a couple is often dismissed as something that simply can’t or shouldn’t be done, but here you both are breaking the mold. What’s your secret to success? What, if any, obstacles do you face and how do you overcome them as a pair?
Thom: I think much like how we operate with our clients it’s important to have working boundaries with your partner also. When we first started working online we shared an office and we made it work for a while but we slowly learned over the years how important it is to have your own space to be creative. We all work differently. Some people prefer music, others podcasts, or some complete silence, and it’s invaluable to have your own space where you can attune to your full potential.
Once we had separate spaces we then have another level of respect and boundaries that we adhere to, for example we won’t just walk in and interrupt each other as that can be extremely disruptive to your creative process, although exceptions are of course made, we still do this if it’s important… or we are making food plans, hehe.
It’s also very important to be clear about your working boundaries with your partner, especially if you are sharing a client. Communicating clearly on what each of you are doing in that role, eg: who is taking a call with a client, who is completing this piece of work. Ultimately the lessons and techniques you have with your actual clients apply directly to your partner and in that regard, it has made it a much simpler process than perhaps we thought it would be when working together.
Amanda: Everything Thom said! And I’m going to add a bit of fun:
- Taking hug breaks (within boundaries, of course!).
- Having coffee together outside for your morning break.
- Eating lunch together.
- Occasionally skiving off for the afternoon to go on an adventure.
And most importantly, remembering that your business partner is also your romantic partner. Conflict might come up, but that’s a business thing, not a personal thing, and doing your very, very best not to take any work frustrations out of the office!
What drew you to the particular services you offer and/or niches that you chose to serve?
Thom: I’ve always prided myself on customer service (thanks 6 years of retail) and I’ve been able to adapt this skillset into the digital world seamlessly. I know so many business owners don’t have time to communicate in an efficient and personal manner to their customers, and this can be the difference that sets your business apart.
Amanda: I love to tell stories, I always have. So when it came time to niche my services, it was natural for me to tell stories professionally. Now, I help my clients tell their stories through the mediums they love best — podcasts or the written word. I specialize in feminist and queer discourse, all things geeky, vegan food and nutrition, podcasting, business, travel, and positive mindset.
In relation to these services, what skills did you come to realize were essential to your success?
- Patience – Building your own business and client base can take time, and you won’t have it all figured out on day one. Even after 5 years of being a VA, I consider myself lucky that every single day I still learn something new and am always in a position of growing.
- Confidence – If you are going to run a business and sell a service, you need to believe in yourself! If you don’t, then you will find nobody else will, either.
- Being Organised (somewhat) – As you are building your business online, especially at the start, you will find it pays to be organized to a degree. Even something simple like knowing when you are available for a meeting or a discovery call, or making sure your inbox/social media messages are being responded to in a timely manner can sometimes be the difference between landing a new client and not.
- Communication – Communication is the biggest skill needed when working online. Any issues that have ever cropped up in my client relationships have happened because of a lack of communication and are usually resolved by – you guessed it – communicating. Set up a dedicated way to communicate with clients and actually do it.
- Feedback – Giving and receiving constructive feedback is also incredibly valuable. The skill is that it’s constructive. This definitely ties back to communication, because you can’t improve the way you work with a client (or vice versa), if you don’t know what they want you to improve.
Take us behind the scenes, what does a typical week at Thankful Cow Solutions look like?
Thom: This is tricky for me to answer. I generally work Monday to Friday (never weekends!) and I do have an outline of work for the day, but the exciting thing is, two days never really feel the same. When you work online, opportunities can present themselves overnight, or maybe you’re working on a new business idea you thought of in the shower. You’re in control of this ship and every day it feels like you’re docking at a new island full of ideas, projects, and opportunities.
Amanda: I never work weekends, and try to keep my work between 10 AM – 4 PM, but some days I’m headed to in-person meetings, hopping on impromptu calls, or just getting the chance to write while listening to my favorite jams. I think the greatest thing about this is that there isn’t really a typical week… it’s always fresh and exciting, which makes me love this work even more.
What 3 tools are essential for your workflows as VAs? (Software, productivity apps, etc.)
- Trello (and using the automation features to create cards for recurring tasks, and use of the calendar power up)
- A good playlist on YouTube (I tend to go for video game soundtracks as these help me focus immensely)
- Slack – Keeping personal and work chat separate is so essential to me. I don’t want clients messaging me on my personal Facebook, for example. Keeping all your client communications all in one space not only makes sense from a work perspective but a mental health perspective, too. It always creates boundaries and a reassurance to your client that this is the space I can contact you if and when I need to.
- Google Drive – Relatively easy and inexpensive document organization that you can share with your clients.
- Dubsado – an all-in-one Customer Management Software that keeps track of everything: invoices, client details, outstanding tasks, appointments & meetings (with vital Google Calendar integration), contracts, client communications… I could go on. It’s essential!
- Music – whatever your music app of choice is, anytime I’m not working on a podcast, I have music on to help me focus.
*Many of the tools mentioned here are taught in our Virtual Excellence Academy, enroll or join the waitlist here
Since you started this journey, which failure turned into a valuable learning experience? How did you grow from it?
Thom: I’m not sure I’d class this as a failure, but I know in my early online days I was not great at setting boundaries with my work. Some days I would work from 8 AM to 8 PM and then not really be sure what I had achieved. I’ve found working every hour available is not healthy nor is it sustainable. Eventually, you will find what works for you with regards to the times of the day where you ‘shine’ and your productivity levels soar. It might be cliché, but it really is about working smarter, not harder.
Amanda: I spent a lot of time, effort, and financial resources niching into social media management for coffee shops and restaurants. A seriously lucrative business, but my heart wasn’t in it. I’d followed some advice from one of my business mentors and a mastermind group to niche this direction, and despite having a background and passion in this space, I didn’t get one client. Talk about disheartening!! But what I learned from this failed experience is that I can’t rely on other people to really advise me where I should niche. It’s helped me have more faith in myself, trust my own process and my own ebbs and flows, and that when I’m actually doing work that lights me up and I feel open to it, I will sign the clients.
If you each had to name a highlighting moment in your VA career, something that you’re very proud of, what would that moment be?
Thom: The moments that shine for me as a VA are when you’re speaking to a client and you get that genuine feedback you are changing their life and business for the better, and that they are actively looking out for your well-being too as they know this benefits not only you but them as well. This is just something I haven’t experienced in a 9-5 job because there, you are merely a number or a cog in a wheel. When you run your own business, it’s all on you, and while that comes with additional pressure, the payoff is exponential.
Amanda: I was approached by a prominent feminist website, e-shop, and resource to write an article about Star Wars from a feminist perspective for Star Wars Day (May 4th). I’m incredibly proud of this article, the in-depth research I put into it, and the reception it received. Being recognized for my contributions to geek feminism… I mean, this is one of the contributions I want to leave in this world!
Amanda, you are the genius behind DNK’s Podcast Management Kit, would you please tell us more about this course?
Amanda: The Podcast Management Kit is a self-paced, all-in-one course that takes you through the steps to start your own podcast or help your clients start their podcast, and how to manage a podcast once it’s live. I’ve poured all the knowledge I’ve gained from my 6 years of hosting, managing, and working in podcast production to create a tidy little course. In particular, I’m quite proud of the lessons on creating workflows (love making life easier!), and, of course, the lesson on shownotes and writing for podcasts holds a very special place in my heart!!
I personally believe it’s the perfect starting point for anyone who wants to become a Podcast Management VA – and with the podcast industry absolutely booming right now, it’s one of the hottest niches to VA in!
Where do you both see yourselves 5 years from now, what’s on your to-do list of things to learn and experience?
Thom: I want to be able to take advantage of working remotely more. As mentioned, we do spend A LOT of time in Northern Ireland or North America, but I have a few locations on my bucket list that could be worth an extended stay, Japan being my #1 place to visit. I want to continue expanding my skill set and currently, I am being mentored in website development and I’m excited to put these skills to use for my current clients.
Amanda: The 5-year plan looks a lot like the present-day plan, but with a lot more travel. Slow travel, renting houses with friends, and exploring more of this gorgeous world of ours. A secret part of my 5-year plan is to publish a book! I would also love to write more for larger publications, especially about feminism, queer issues, and that intersection in geek culture.
What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever had that you wish to share with others?
Thom: Don’t burn bridges. You may (and probably will) have an experience with a client that doesn’t turn out how both parties expected. In business, sometimes things don’t work out for various reasons. Always be professional in these situations. Remember you are representing your brand. You may even find an ex-client ends up referring you work and they can still be a valuable part of your network.
Amanda: Embrace Your Weird. This is from DNK founder, Hannah Dixon, obviously 😉 but it’s honestly the best advice. People buy from people and you can only find YOUR people when you’re being your true, awesome, authentic, weird AF self! Let your personality shine through in your business and you will find your clients!
Thank you Amanda and Thom for sharing so many personal insights and tips with us today!
CONNECT WITH AMANDA AND THOM:
Thom and Amanda joined The Virtual Excellence Academy in June 2017, launching their VA careers by August of the same year. We are extremely proud of these two incredible alumni, and inspired by their journeys!